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Lake Hood grapples with growing pains.

It's an old Anchorage landmark that figures in a million memories of locals and visitors alike: early morning departures to favorite king salmon streams. Springtime clam digging expeditions across the inlet. Fondly remembered trips to hunt moose and duck, and berrypicking expeditions to remote and secret spots. Flying home in sunset golds, reds and lavenders.

Lake Hood, largest and busiest seaplane base in the world, is plain, unobtrusive and dependable as an old uncle. It's never the traveler's focal point, just a humble stepping stone to adventure for many and to prosperity for a few.

Breaking the Boundaries

Like the uncle, Lake Hood is often taken for granted. It's easy, especially for non-aviators, to miss the seaplane base in the rest of the airport bustle. But before there was much of anything else in the area, there were pontoons bobbing in the shallow, marshy water. Even before 1940, lakes Hood and Spenard had been joined by a channel with a gravel strip to the south. The float plane base was enlarged during the 1950s; a control tower was added in 1954.

"All we had out there were Super Cubs and Cessna 180s. There were practically no sightseers in those days," says Hank Rust. Rust's Flying Service has parked at Lake Hood since 1963, when the aviator finished a tour of military duty.

More recently, it's been the best of times and the worst of times at the lake: Growing demand for the services of the base reflects a positive economic environment, but the facility is busting its seams, with more than 300 float planes based at Lake Hood during the summer. Commercial float plane operators have expanded their operations in response to tourist demand for fishing trips and flightseeing, which has surged in the last five years. Waiting lists for slips are long and commonplace. Small companies hauling passengers and freight to the Bush add to a growing concern about congestion and related problems.

"It gradually grew over the years, but the big influx didn't occur until the late '80s," says Rust. "There's been a lot of clamoring for more space."

Crowded Travel Routes

Long famous as the world's largest float plane haven, Lake Hood has now gained mild notoriety for defying efforts to prepare it for the next century of aviation. Planners persist in conducting studies and workshops, but seem no closer to finding the magic mix of political consensus, dollars and raw acreage needed to meet growing aviation needs. Commercial and private operators coexist peacefully at Lake Hood, but the divergence of their needs and interests complicates efforts to find solutions.

One serious problem is that the air space can't handle much more traffic. "It can be congested out there at times," says Tom Middendorf, airport planning manager.

The state owns 315 float plane slips that are leased to private individuals and companies. Most of the slips are located along the Lake Spenard shoreline and the five fingers situated along the Lake Hood taxi channel and its north shore. Counting privately-owned spaces, there are an estimated 404 slips altogether.

There's a long line of pilots waiting for a place to park float planes, the list topping 400 at last count. Facilities for wheeled craft are cramped as well. In FY 1992, Lake Hood saw a total of 84, 738 air-taxi or general aviation operations, which are defined as a take-off or a landing.

Middendorf says it's not just a problem of high traffic volume and insufficient space. A long list of nagging deficiencies linked to the haphazard layout of the Lake Hood area put pilots, drivers, cyclists and joggers at risk of property damage, injury or worse as all travel along the same confusing network of winding roads and taxiways. Security of aircraft and leased storage units is also a mounting concern.

Planning for Change

In 1987, the airport conducted a master plan calling for changes, such as excavation of adjacent wetlands to expand float plane spaces and a new general aviation facility with longer paved and gravel runways.

"Once we introduced the idea, it didn't get a lot of support," Middendorf recalls. A subsequent cost analysis produced a price tag of $40 million plus, and engineers worried that expansion would lower the level of the already shallow lake water and render it ineffective or unsafe for takeoffs.

Last summer, officials went back to Lake Hood users for another try. This time, public meetings produced some momentum for a series of piecemeal measures designed to forestall more serious difficulties. As a result, Middendorf says, security improvements have been made; guard rails and better dust control are coming. And yet another master plan to ease crowded conditions.

"We've instructed our consultant to look at smaller incremental measures," says Middendorf. "We're going to work with the pilots and users in the process and use their ideas to the extent that they're workable."

Middendorf says representatives of the Alaska Airmen's Association and Seaplane Pilots Association will serve on an advisory committee for the plan, which is being prepared by KPMG Peat Marwick Airport Consultants. While large-scale improvements are not going to fly, he expects options in the $10 million to $15 million range, spread over the next 10 to 15 years, would probably be feasible.

A Rich Man's Hobby?

One of those ideas is bound to be a proposal to roll back a recent increase in rental fees for general aviation use.

"There was a large lack of support for the increase," notes Middendorf with stoic understatement. Pilots complain that with hikes in the cost of insurance, fuel and now space rentals, local aviation is in danger of becoming a rich man's hobby. But Middendorf defends the increase, saying it's the first since the 1970s. Monthly fees now range from $30 for ice tie-downs to $55 for a float plane space, with surcharges for additional services that pilots need.

According to Middendorf, companies operating fly-in fishing and flightseeing outfits based at Lake Hood have been skeptical about any plans to accommodate more private planes at the facility. Their priorities include:

* Further extension of sewer and water utilities to provide adequate facilities to a tourist market growing in size and consumer savvy;

* Dealing with existing congestion, especially marked on weekends during the summer and fall; and

* Continued access to the large runways at Anchorage International Airport, which involves negotiating the existing taxiway gauntlet of vehicle and pedestrian traffic between Lake Hood and the airport's large runways, as well as maneuvering through the jet traffic.

"It's pretty densely populated now," says Rust. "It can get pretty hectic out there. The thing about a float plane is you can't stop and park while you're waiting for take-off."

Flying Toward the Future

Rust and others fear that both safety and service will decline if more planes are added at the facility. While disaster as a result of congestion is not imminent, Rust says care must be taken not to let the situation deteriorate.

"I'm not sure we're approaching that point, but we don't want to get to that point either. There's a good potential for conflict there," Rust says. "I don't think we can afford to put many more airplanes on the lake. That means some people are going to be disappointed."

Considering the aviation growth projections for the municipality, this is probably a true statement. By the year 2005, planners expect demand for Lake Hood could reach 1,870 based float planes alone, about 45 percent of the city's total. Air-taxi and private operations combined are expected to reach 161,260.

But despite the predictable disappointments, the planning now under way is bound to make the flying life easier for those who already have slips and tie-downs and enhance the safety of venerable old Lake Hood. The changing character of aviation and economic constraints will continue to shape the demand for the services available at the lake, as well as for the government's ability to satisfy demands. And Lake Hood will continue to break records as an entry and exit point for Alaska adventurers.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Lake Hood, Alaska
Author:Richardson, Jeffrey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Time and the river.
Next Article:Harmony Point Wilderness Lodge: a niche in time.

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